If you struggle with depression, or if you’re just feeling down lately, it’s helpful to get familiar with the happiness chemicals and how to “hack” them (encourage them) to improve your mood.
The following happiness chemicals play a role in your mood and mental health, and therefore need to be targeted:
- Dopamine – responsible for our sense of reward
- Serotonin – a major assisting factor in regulating mood
- Oxytocin – activated through affection and “feel-good” activities
- Endorphins – aids in pain relief
You’ll be surprised to hear that each of these happiness chemicals can be hacked with fairly accessible small lifestyle changes. Things like exercise, diet, meditation, and spending time with loved ones are all activities that contribute to the happiness chemicals in useful ways!
Keep in mind as we move forward in the post, depression will not be “cured” with any quick fix. These are simply steps you can take to lessen the impact of depressive symptoms. Therapy is always recommended when struggling with chronic mental health conditions (I even use online therapy myself!). But for the occasional drop in mood, these hacks are great in a pinch!
Here’s a deeper look at each of the happiness chemicals and how to hack them.
Dopamine: The Reward Chemical
Dopamine plays a role in our pleasure. In turn, this plays a role in our ability to think and plan in a way that strives for reward. It is involved in our learning, motivation, sleep, mood, attention, and more.
What can happen with a dopamine imbalance?
Too much dopamine: may be responsible for schizophrenia. Having too much dopamine in different areas of the brain causes hallucinations and delusions seen in schizophrenic patients.
Too little dopamine: may be responsible for ADHD, according to some research. This lack of enough dopamine can make for a lack of focus, which is why ADHD causes attention difficulties.
Additionally, a lack of enough dopamine can cause depressive symptoms. This made so much sense for me personally, as psychiatrists tend to prescribe medications that target serotonin first, and not dopamine.
It wasn’t until I got prescribed a medication that targeted dopamine that my depressive symptoms finally improved! Sometimes, your serotonin levels may be just fine, but another chemical like dopamine may be out of balance and causing depressive symptoms.
This is especially true if you find yourself experiencing the more motivation-related symptoms, like feeling hopeless, loss of interest, and difficulty concentrating. These were exactly how my depression affected me.
Happiness Chemical Hacks for Dopamine
- Try something new: Switching up your daily routine or taking on a new hobby can help create a “new” reward motivation for yourself. This will help to get you out of monotony.
- Listen to enjoyable music
- Make a small (manageable) list of tasks and complete them: each completed task will register as a “reward”
Serotonin: The Mood Stabilizer
Serotonin is one chemical that is related to positive mood. It impacts many things, from your emotions to your motor skills.
What can happen with a serotonin imbalance?
Too much serotonin: This can cause “serotonin syndrome.” This is uncommon and usually only caused by the use of too much medication or the addition of a new medication that increases serotonin. Serotonin syndrome causes confusion, rapid heart rate, and agitation.
Too little serotonin: Much more common–resulting in anxiety and depression. You may feel down, more anxious, less calm, less focused, and less emotionally stable. Serotonin is what psychiatrists attempt to address first when treating anxiety and depression.
Happiness Chemical Hacks for Serotonin
- Exposure to bright light: can explain why seasonal depression typically clears up in the summer months
- Exercise: has been known to boost mood where serotonin is concerned
- Meditation: helps relieve stress and improve your outlook on life
- A healthy diet: foods like eggs, cheese, and nuts.
On that note, I want to take a moment to dive into the mental health benefits of meditation.
As serotonin deficiency is a very common cause of depression and anxiety, and knowing that meditation can help alleviate these symptoms, it’s important to talk about.
Oxytocin: The Love Hormone
Oxytocin is involved in empathy, trust, and relationship-building. It’s called the “love hormone” because oxytocin is released during activities like hugging, breastfeeding, and orgasm.
What can happen with an oxytocin imbalance?
Too much oxytocin: I know you might be thinking “what bad can come from too much love?” but, actually, too much oxytocin can result in oversensitivity to the emotions of others.
For example, when given measured doses of oxytocin, participants in a study reported greater emotional intensity when looking at a series of facial expressions.
Too little oxytocin: This can result in low empathy, and can also be a factor among patients with autism.
Happiness Chemical Hacks for Oxytocin
- Get or give a massage: this physical contact will boost oxytocin
- Tell someone that you love and care about them
- Spend time with friends: helps build up your emotional well-being and increase bonding
- Show affection: both romantic and platonic affection can trigger oxytocin production
- Do something nice for someone: seeing your efforts to make someone else happy can make you feel happy too!
Endorphins: The Pain Reliever
Endorphins are responsible for reducing pain and boosting pleasure. They are released in response to pain and stress, but also during pleasurable activities like eating, sex, or exercise.
What can happen with an endorphin imbalance?
Too many endorphins: I’m not finding any studies done on this, so “too many” (natural) endorphins might not be a problem!
Too little endorphins: contributes to depression. Endorphins, like dopamine, play a role in our reward system, so depression can certainly result from an unstimulated reward system.
Happiness Chemical Hacks for Endorphins
- Regular exercise (think “runner’s high”!) although, this doesn’t have to be running. Read my article on The Ultimate Exercise Routine for Boosting Mental Health for exercise ideas that can boost your endorphins
- Yoga and, again, meditation!
- Create music or art
I hope this makes the science behind these “happy brain chemicals” a little clearer! Knowing what each of these happy brain chemicals are and how to hack them will help you identify what you can do to boost your mood and improve your overall mental well-being.
Article by Alexa Davis
Source: Happiness Chemicals and How to Hack Them For Better Mental Health – Ambitiously Alexa
Note: The author has a B.A. degree in Psychology and this information is quite interesting. But, do not try to medicate yourself. Please see a medical professional if suffering any long-term mental issues.